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April 10, 2009

France: Golf in the Alsace

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Filed under : General Green

Golf is about knowing one’s limitations, and when the conversation turns to course architecture my strategy is to reach for the rescue club of scepticism and invite you to play through. Nicklaus, Norman, Ballesteros – architects? Aren’t they just retired champions who sell their names to golf clubs aspiring to top-dollar status?

So it was with a nervous glance over my shoulder, to make sure no one I knew was listening, that I took the professional aside after a round at Les Bordes, a ravishingly beautiful course in France near Orléans, and asked: who designed this masterpiece, and what else has he done?

Robert von Hagge, was the answer. “And if you like his work, you have to go to Strasbourg and play the Kempferhof.”

Alsace? Golf? It seemed a rather far-fetched idea. But when a friend announced that he had retired to run a hotel in Strasbourg and work on his handicap at “le Kempf”, I booked in for the next available weekend.

“Welcome to my garden!” said Jean, when we shook hands on a warm Friday afternoon. “This is where I come to refresh my spirit [being French, he speaks like this]. Do you see the heron? With luck, my kingfisher friend will meet us at the 7th, and, please, listen to the silence. Isn’t it incredible to have this on my doorstep, so close to the centre of Strasbourg?” Yes, and only 15 minutes from the airport.

With an artist’s relish for the tension between green and pleasant surroundings and the inner turmoil of white-knuckle risk-reward golf, von Hagge has put together a remarkable course, full of charm and changes of mood. Instead of a succession of expanses of water that require hitting over – though there are a few of these – he prefers the sluggish waterway lurking behind a screen of trees.

The front nine is wooded, tight and decidedly intimidating, but there are more spacious holes to look forward to on the way home, for a chance to swing freely before a blind lake hole twists the knife at the end. As with many of these trophy courses, if you’re on your game you’ll love it. If not, you may come away cursing von Hagge and all his works.

The Hof itself is a 17th-century manor house, recently converted to a small hotel. It makes an elegant backdrop to two of the more fiendish water holes and one could stay here in some comfort, overlooking the misfortunes of those in peril on the tee and not leaving the premises all weekend. But the movie-themed bedrooms might be a bit gimmicky for some tastes and I was more than happy to settle for the bachelor modernism of Jean’s hotel, the Dragon, which is perfectly placed for exploring old Strasbourg – strolling the banks of its waterways, visiting the cathedral and enjoying the après-golf in the restaurants.

Any prejudice we may have about Alsace being not really French will only be reinforced by a visit to the region’s second-string course, Soufflenheim. In fact, on reaching “Golf Club Baden Baden” we could be forgiven for imagining we had crossed the border by mistake. The membership is 90 per cent German and the cluster of neat villas and apartment buildings has the look of a well-appointed staff college.

Soufflenheim’s golfing offer is nothing if not comprehensive: a junior course, a beginners’ course, an academy, and an 18-hole stinker designed by Bernhard Langer. It strikes a serious, almost solemn, note: long, tough, no-nonsense golf with severe punishment – usually water – if we stray from the straight and narrow.

The clubhouse lunch is outstanding, though, and most of the trade consists of French golfers enjoying lunch on expenses. The German golfer eats sandwiches on the way around.

The other thing I liked about Soufflenheim was its reduced rate if you tee off before nine. This is a fine arrangement for the golfer who wants to play at the double before an honest day’s toil, or, if on holiday, combine golf with something else: a potter down the prettiest wine route in France, perhaps, with its cobbled villages, timbered houses and storks’ nests… or even another golf course.

The discount may reflect an idiosyncrasy of the local climate: morning mist, as encountered at another highly rated course near the Rhine, Wantzenau. On a morning when one struggled to see the flag from the fringe of the green, golf was a hiding to nothing. We saw enough to understand the nature of the challenge, though: water, everywhere.

On such a day one needs a course raised above the floor of the Rhineland plain. There is one near Colmar, at Ammerschwihr, which would fit in well with a wine tour, but the golf is better at Hagenthal, in a pleasant pastoral setting of rolling farmland close to the Swiss border and Basel. Completing the Alsatian melting pot theme, Hagenthal is a Swiss club on French soil: at “Country Club Bale” the atmosphere is quite private, though not unfriendly.

The architect here was another German Bernhard – von Limburger. Questions may have been asked about his role as golf architect by appointment to the Third Reich, but I couldn’t help liking the man. Having rarely been more than a whisker away from the water at Soufflenheim, Kempferhof and Wantzenau, it came as a relief to play a course with only a couple of small ponds to worry about. Nor was von Limburger a trigger-happy bunker man, preferring the strategically placed tree to complicate our work. I think he understood human frailty better than Langer.

There is a good little hotel at Hagenthal, the Jenny, so Alsace has the makings of a good golf tour from Basel to Strasbourg or vice versa. Whether you choose to wrap it up with the challenge of the Kempferhof or Hagenthal’s stroll in the park, you can miss your last putt 90 minutes before take-off and still have time to sink one at the 19th.

Getting there

French Golf Holidays (01277 824100; ) offers four nights’ b&b at Le Kempferhof with one dinner and four green fees at Kempferhof (two rounds), Wantzenau, and Soufflenheim from £599 per person including Channel Tunnel for a car and four passengers. Fly-drive and alternative accommodation also offered. British Airways (08444 930787; ) has flights from Heathrow to Basel from £106 return.

Further information

Hôtel du Dragon, Strasbourg (0033 3883 57980; ), doubles from £61; Hôtel Kempferhof (8898 7272; ) has a golf package: three nights’ b&b, one dinner, two green fees from £485; Hôtel Jenny, Hagenthal le Bas (8968 5009; ), doubles from £56.

Green fees Kempferhof, €90-120; Soufflenheim (8805 7700; ), €40-95; Wantzenau (8896 3773;, €55-70; Bale-Hagenthal (8968 5091; ), €80-120.

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